Coney Island, the late 1950s: a once wondrous bastion of beautiful bodies in modest bathing suits and candy-colored attractions, now on the wane. Woody Allen’s Wonder Wheel takes its name from the Ferris wheel in Deno’s Amusement Park, built in 1920. The hulking structure, which has maintained a perfect safety record for 97 years and remains a tourist attraction, acts as a symbol for the allure of a better, more promising future, a reminder of salad days and the feeling of returning again and again to the same spot.
Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a lifeguard and aspiring poet, narrates the film, and he has the gaudy hyper-articulation of a freshmen writer. He’s “poetic by nature,” planning to “turn out a profound masterpiece” one day. He name-drops Eugene O’Neill and waxes poetic on Hamlet, so that we know he’s a serious writer. Sweet and swoony, with his immaculate side part and honeyed pseudo-erudition, he’s an aesthetic departure from Allen’s usual neurotic avatars but retains their affinity for pontificating on life’s mysteries by way of literary musings. He says that people often write their own tragedies, their hamartia being a self-fulfilling prophecy—though fate plays a role, of course.
Wonder Wheel’s narrative, and its hyperbolic affectations, are purportedly filtered through Mickey’s eyes. His propensity for viewing life as a real-time drama, and people as corporeal players, lends the proceedings an air of awkward theatricality, and one wonders if the film, which is populated exclusively by cardboard characters and rife with stilted dialogue and ersatz feelings, is really the product of his imagination or Allen’s.
“Enter Carolina,” Mickey intones, as a young, waxen-haired ingénue (Juno Temple) saunters onto the boardwalk, the variegated rides alive around her, the reds and blues popping and the Ferris wheel looming over her like an unfulfilled dream. She’s on the run from her gangster ex-husband, who has her marked for death. (Two Italian-American guys show up looking for her, and you know they’re Bad Men because they’re played by Tony Sirico and Steve Schirripa.) She runs to her estranged father, the howling, bibulous Humpty (Jim Belushi), who operates a merry-go-round, though business is down, making the metaphor for his Sisyphean existence even more pitiful.
Mickey is having an affair with Humpty’s wife, Ginny (Kate Winslet), an unhappy waitress, and one-time aspiring actress. With Mickey she finds a renewed sense of self-esteem; she laments her many bad decisions, the marriage she ruined and the one in which she’s now trapped, the son who likes to set fires in apartment basements, the job she hates, her home which overlooks the boardwalk and once “housed a freak show.” She suffers from migraines and takes slugs from a bottle when no one (or someone) is looking. Humpty is a brute, and when he gets a few drinks in him he gets violent, but he loves his daughter, in his own way. He wants better for her, repeatedly telling Ginny, without apparent care or concern for her feelings, that she won’t waste her life being a waitress. Each pious utterance, however well-intended, only further augments his wife’s resentment of him. He asks her to go fishing, even though she hates fishing. He asks her to go to a Yankees game, even though she hates baseball. She doesn’t ask, or want, much from him.
You can see the inevitable love triangles and emotional entanglements coming from the moment Mickey takes Ginny under the pier. Her intense infatuation with the happier life he represents clashes with Carolina’s hopes to rectify her own romantic missteps, and Mickey, who fancies himself an unbiased narrator, inadvertently writes everyone else’s tragedy.
Though he’s directed some of the finest performances in American cinema, and his gift for rambling, navel-gazing dialogue was, at one point, eminently quotable, Allen manages to coax painfully unnatural performances from almost everyone here. The tone throughout vacillates wildly from silly comedy to classic Hollywood melodrama, and all of it feels as artificial and unsatisfying as the cotton candy twirling in a vending cart. Winslet in particular plays her role with unabashed histrionics, all fury and forced emotions. It’s her most misguided performance since Sam Mendes’s voluptuously idiotic adaptation of Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road. Belushi fares better, spewing out vitriol and love with equal amounts of conviction, but all the shouting and scenery-chewing going on around him saps the poignancy from his performance.
As Allen’s writing seems to grow lazier, his scripts feeling increasingly like first drafts rushed into production and his characters resembling vague husks rather than actual humans, his work behind the camera suggests an artist who’s continuously honing his craft. His choice of cinematographers has distinguished his films just as much as his interminable flair for luring the most in-demand actresses. He allows his visual collaborators to flaunt their skills, and Wonder Wheel, shot by the iconoclastic Vittorio Storaro, who also shot last year’s Café Society, looks like nothing else in Allen’s oeuvre.
Storaro imbues the film with a lucidity and sense of life that belies Allen’s writing. (The pair revel in the structural eccentricities and visual splendor of Coney Island, and the architecture seems to interest Allen more than the people.) His photography in Café Society harkens back to the halcyon shimmer of New Hollywood, all chiaroscuro shadows and sunlight streaming through windows, decanting across oak desks. There’s a day-dreamy melancholy in his evocation of the past, the sun-splashed sprawl of L.A. and the ashen confines of New York. Here, he creates a visual palette of polychromatic vibrancy, the mélange of garish colors spilling into the frame recalling the quixotic remembrances of a bygone era rather than a faithful evocation of reality.
In Wonder Wheel, Storaro uses the inherent saturation and low-light clarity of digital photography in ways that suggest he’s reinvigorated, finding the potential beauty in the flux of new cinematic technology. When Ginny recalls her past to Mickey, Storaro douses her in a fervid red, the passion of her story seeping into the image; as her story takes a heartbreaking turn, the red gives way to blue. The trick is repeated later, when Carolina talks of her feelings for Mickey and Ginny grows irate, jealous. Storaro accentuates (or even engenders) feelings that Allen otherwise doesn’t earn.
For all its hot dogs and white-capped waves and sun-soaked landmarks, Coney Island is now, for Wonder Wheel’s characters, a place suffused with sadness, full of broken hearts and wasted lives. All that colorful machinery and those harlequin billboards and effervescent lights strung up overhead feel conjured from the fever dream of a former romantic. It feels like the manifestation of innocence at the moment before corruption.